On Doubts and Taste in Books

Doubt is a good thing when you’re a writer. It’s an important part of everyone’s journey. I don’t want to speak in absolutes, but if you’ve never doubted the greatness of your work, then it’s probably not very good. You probably haven’t grown much as a writer.

Doubt comes in waves. It happens a lot early on, but as you write and publish more and more, you come to have a bit more confidence in your own style and taste. You begin to see the common pitfalls in other new writers without even trying. This internalization means you mostly aren’t making those mistakes anymore.

Doubt starts to come from other places. Maybe you aren’t getting the sales you would like. Maybe a negative review resonates with you. Maybe you read a book on writing, and you realize there’s a big mistake you’re making that you never noticed before. You start to wonder what other mistakes you’re making.

I have a new source of doubt, and it is coming from the strangest place: reading. I used to love reading. I would devour books. I’d be completely transported to another place, no matter the book or genre. I couldn’t get enough.

It makes sense that as my understanding of story grew, I’d start to not like some poorly constructed novels. It makes sense that novels with sloppy prose would fall away. It makes sense that I’d get more discerning in my taste along several dimensions.

What worries me is that I basically don’t like anything I read anymore. I just can’t get into any book. I currently read 60-80 books a year (it sounds like a lot, but that’s one book a week plus some audiobooks while running or traveling).

The scary part is that it’s not like I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel. I’ve chosen all 23 books I’ve read this year from “best of” lists or from direct recommendations.

I got into Mystic River in late January, but since then, I haven’t really gotten into any book I’ve read. Oathbringer has a 4.65/5 rating on Goodreads after 42,500 reviews. The book is basically unreadable to me. It’s too slow. It has too many unnecessary details. It’s the type of self-indulgent thing popular writers can only get away with after they hit a certain level of fame (think Stephen King). It only got published in that form because people are afraid to tell Sanderson to cut it down.

I won’t call out every problem with every book I’ve read this year. The point is that I’m really worried that I’ve developed my taste and style in a way that doesn’t match the vast majority of people. These are my doubts. Maybe it’s not that all these popular people are writing bad books; maybe it’s my own writing that’s bad.

I can think of a few other explanations.

First, maybe it’s burnout. There’s not much more to this theory. Maybe 80 books a year is too much. If I just take a break and reset, I’ll find myself getting lost in some good books again.

Second, maybe writing changes the way you read. I still love writing. I really get into my own books as I’m writing them. There might just be something about the active nature of producing a story that makes passively consuming one inherently less interesting.

Third, maybe I actually am on a bad streak. As they say, 90% of everything is crap. If we take that to be a fact, then there’s a high probability of long streaks of crap. Of course, what does this even mean? There are “objectively good” books that people hate and “objectively bad” books that people love.

Fourth, my taste is not marketable, which makes it hard to naturally run across the types of books that will truly engage me. I don’t have the patience for the experimental literary stuff that I did in my youth. So the literary scene tends to disappoint me. But the commercial fiction scene tends to be too sloppy for my taste.

My latest book, Specter of the Spheres, tries to straddle this line. It’s high-concept, metaphorical, and has a complicated construction like a literary novel. But it’s wrapped in a fantasy quest and even some sci-fi elements. I’ve learned that this is usually called “slipstream,” and I haven’t read anything in that genre for a long time.

But maybe my doubts have some truth to them. Maybe I need to spend some time re-calibrating what I think is good. I don’t even know where to start with this, though, because I can’t find books out there that I like to read anymore.

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Why It Works: The Lord of the Rings

A series in which I oversimplify one concept from a work of literature to make you a better writer.

Corruption.

The ring corrupts everyone.

Quite early on, we learn that Frodo, our hero, is not immune to the corrupting effects. This becomes one of the greatest sources of tension. Will Frodo be able to destroy the ring when the time comes?

A common misconception about the hero’s journey fantasy writers make early in their career is that they set up an impossible task, and then through the course of the novel, the hero grows and can suddenly overcome the task. This will leave the reader feeling cheated.

The impossible task can’t do the work of creating tension and then turn out not to be impossible at the end of the novel. Imagine if after all the buildup of The Lord of the RingsFrodo stands at the Cracks of Doom and tosses the ring in like Rose at the end of Titanic.

We might not be talking about the books today.

What makes the climax of The Lord of the Rings so good is that Frodo is corrupted. He doesn’t magically succeed over the impossible. He doesn’t throw the ring in. He puts it on his finger with the intention of not destroying it. Frodo succumbs to the corruption, because it’s impossible for him not to.

The first time you read or see that, your reaction should be, “No. What? That’s not how this is supposed to go.”

But it’s the only way it could go. We know that at some deep level. The only way the ring gets destroyed is through its absolute corrupting effects. The ring gets destroyed by accident. If any living being managed to do it through sheer willpower, we’d have to rethink the entire plot. We’d be forced to think: well, I guess the ring wasn’t that powerful after all.

Keep this in mind the next time you’re plotting a book. If something has an absolute attached to it, then it must be an absolute. The hero can’t magically rise above it. Use the absolute to your advantage. What happens if your hero actually succumbs to it? This could be an opportunity for a dramatic and harrowing plot twist right at the climax.

Year of Mystery Novels, Part 4: The Big Sleep

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The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler is probably my least favorite mystery novel of the year so far.

Let’s start with the good. Chandler’s style of writing is amazing. It’s full of sentences that contribute to the noir atmosphere. One of my favorite examples is: “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.” It obviously makes no sense as a description, but it says so much about the attitude and psychology of the main character, Philip Marlowe.

Paying attention to the little things pays off. For example, when Marlowe enters a used bookshop early on, he asks for a highly specific book. I thought this was the author filling the book with needless detail, a boring bad habit of some writers. But in actuality, it’s a book that doesn’t exist, so the fact that the used bookseller didn’t know this showed they were a fraud. This payoff only comes to readers paying attention to this type of thing.

So I thought the writing style and layering in of small details that pay off were excellent. In fact, maybe the best of all the mystery novels I’ve read this year.

The problem is that I had a very hard time picking the book up when I stopped reading it for a session. I just wasn’t invested in the plot or characters. I think this had to do with the fact that this “hardboiled” subgenre is a slower burn. It’s more about gradually exposing a much larger situation. This means the tension comes from the context you’re given rather than an immediate threat or mystery or suspects.

I don’t even have to reveal too much of the plot to discuss what felt off. I think a lot of the character actions were unmotivated. People are murdered, but I found myself thinking: really? Over that? I know they were “criminals,” and by that I mean “producing pornography” and “being homosexual,” but it’s not like they were mob bosses hardened to murder. It was too extreme for the context.

Everything in the plot felt more like convenience than truly motivated action. I get that we have to look at it through the lens of the time. “Revenge porn” is bad enough today, having naked pictures loose of the daughter of a high-ranking person back in the 20’s could destroy that person. I get that.

But I never really felt the danger or tension or potential catastrophes from the way the novel was told. It was like a big puzzle, and each piece had been placed there for the purpose of completing the puzzle and not as a truly motivated plot point.

Maybe I’m the only one that felt that way, because this is a pretty universally praised book. One of the cool things about it was that you see basically every hardboiled detective trope in this book, as it was the first of its kind.

I think I’m going to take a brief break and then come back with something modern. It hasn’t occurred to me before now that people might want to read along with me. I’ll be doing Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg. I’ve heard it might upset the “purists,” but I’m trying to get a variety over the course of the year.

Year of Mystery Novels, Part 2: Mystic River

For my second mystery novel of the year, I decided to do Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. I know this was a really famous movie when it came out, but somehow I went into this not knowing anything about the plot or mystery at all. I highly recommend this to anyone who can manage it.

I really should have started the year with this one, because it blew me away. It could very well end up being one of my favorite books I read this year. It also clarified for me what I didn’t like about The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Mystic River has incredible depth to it. The atmosphere of the neighborhood plays a big role. Each of the characters have a history with the others. In the first few pages, we get a horrific scene that carries on thirty years later to create guilt and pain between two of the main characters.

The characters are all deeply flawed, and one of the best parts of the novel is to see how small mistakes can escalate quickly into terrible, life-changing moments through perfectly understandable overreactions.

This is what the Sherlock Holmes novel was missing. Mystic River is first and foremost a novel with subplots and tension and a bunch of moving parts contributing to the plot. The Holmes novel was a mystery first and maybe character study next. The “novel” part was more an afterthought.

Let’s move on from these vague descriptions to some of the takeaway lessons. There will obviously be spoilers from here on out.

It takes 150 pages to get to the discovery of the dead body. Before this happens, Lehane carefully sets up a bunch of scenarios. It’s unclear which, if any, will turn into the main mystery of the novel.

The way he does this is to give us points of view of people tangential to the potential crimes. The opening chapter is from the point of view of a childhood friend of a kid that is abducted. Next we get the wife of a man who comes home with blood all over him.

This sets up a bunch of scenarios, all of which pique the interest of the reader even if they end up not being the main crime. It’s rather clever, because the book doesn’t turn so much on figuring who did it. Instead, we want to figure out how each of these scenarios are related. It’s a much more engaging way to let the mystery unfold.

Another thing this book does well is to show the grieving of the families involved. In a more classical mystery telling we are so focused on the detective and clues that this human and emotional component totally disappears.

I won’t spoil the actual ending, but I will say that it is nice to have the crime be so believable. I don’t like when it turns out to be a complete sociopath or someone who can only be described as “pure evil.” Turn on the news. People die at the hands of others for really mundane reasons. And, wow, the final reveal in this book will leave the most coldhearted person shaken.

The pacing and tension were done really well for all the the above reasons. My only complaint is my standard one. This is clearly “commercial fiction” with how sloppy the prose style is. The first fifty pages took some effort to plod through.

Without hunting for the truly egregious sentences, here’s one on a random early page:

He’d [Sean’s father] planned the back porch here, something he and his friends threw up one blistering summer when Sean was five, and he came down here when he wanted peace and quiet, and sometimes when he was angry, Sean knew, angry at Sean or Sean’s mother or his job.

This is very typical. The sentences are fine, except at the end they get needlessly confusing and wordy. Lehane tends to use pronouns a touch too long without reminding us who it is referring to. He also conflates point of view (like in this one it’s hard to tell if Sean’s father or Sean is supposed to be the viewpoint).

Overall, I think the biggest takeaway from this novel is to keep the mystery active with scenarios and character actions. It creates a more compelling read than when information is revealed through the discovery of clues.

My 2018 Reading List

Two years ago I started to use a theme for my year of reading. This was an attempt to focus on one form or style for study. I did a year of giant novels and then a year of short fiction. This year I wanted to challenge myself to read something I have almost no familiarity with.

This will be The Year of Mystery Novels. I came to the realization that I’d never read any mystery novel, maybe ever. I haven’t even read classics like Sherlock Holmes or anything by Agatha ChristieYikes!

Sure, I’ve read the Dresden Files, but those are urban fantasy with mystery elements. I’ve read plenty of novels that have mysteries in them, but the mystery novel itself is different. It stands or falls on the ability to keep the reader surprised, guessing, and intrigued about a mystery.

This is an ability all novelists could use to up their writing. So, this year, I want to explore what makes a mystery novel work. My goal is to read ten, and these are the ones I’ve come up with so far:

  1. Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
  2. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  3. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  4. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  5. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  6. Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
  7. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg
  8. A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Bern

I need two more, so if you love mysteries and see something missing, let me know. I’m also not locked in to any of these. I tried to get a huge range from classic procedural to modern paranormal to experimental to literary.

As for the rest of my reading, I usually shoot for 52 books a year. That’s one book a week. It’s enough that I have to keep reading to do it, but it’s not stressful if I miss a few days for illness or travel or something.

Other than mysteries, I want to read about ten books written in 2018. At the end of last year, I realized I dropped the ball on current literature. I will also shoot for about ten nonfiction books. That leaves twelve books that I’ll probably fill in on a whim. I’m in the middle of a few fantasy series, so it will mostly be those (Malazan, The Stormlight Archives, The Wheel of Time, Dresden Files).

My 2017 Reading Awards

As usual, I’m going to do a best of 2017 books list. This does not mean the book came out in 2017; it means I read it this year. According to Goodreads, I read 55 books. Of course, many of those were novellas, and probably a dozen I listened to while on long runs training for a half marathon. So don’t get too freaked out by that number.

 

BEST OVERALL:

Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri

My thoughts are recorded here.

The Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe

I read this divided into four novels. Only The Sword of the Lichtor stood out at the time as excellent. But if the four are taken as one single novel, then I think this deserves best overall. Even ten months later, I continue to think about it. It’s fascinating how I’ll be reading something else, and I realize something about this book. I think: Oh, that’s what that probably meant.

I remain haunted by its strangeness, and how perfect and shocking it was to realize certain things right in front of me the whole time were something totally different. (I’m remaining intentionally vague to not spoil it for anyone).

 

BEST SCI-FI/FANTASY:

Imajica – Clive Barker

I know Clive Barker writes “horror,” but this novel is fantasy through and through. Nothing has influenced my writing this year more than this novel. Further thoughts here.

Gardens of the Moon – Steven Erikson

This is some of the best written, most inventive/unique, and deep fantasy novels I’ve ever read. I can’t wait to dig into the rest of the Malazan series. I have the second one sitting on my shelf.

Analysis of the prose can be found here.

 

BEST NONFICTION:

The Boys in the Boat – Daniel James Brown

This was an impeccably written and gripping story of a group of poor boys working hard to achieve their Olympic dreams. The pacing and prose are better than most fiction books I’ve read. Daniel James Brown has produced something beautiful here.

The story also serves as a much needed reminder that intercontinental sport competition and the Olympics in particular are never really just friendly shows of competition. They are highly political acts that can have real-world implications.

From the 1936 games under Hitler to the Munich massacre in ’72 to the recent use of victory at the Sochi Olympics for Russia to invade Crimea and Ukraine, this book should serve as a wake up call to anyone under false delusions about what’s really going on.

The Case Against Sugar – Gary Taubes

The book starts with the analogy of a trial. Sugar is being prosecuted for many of the illnesses associated with obesity: diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, heart disease, etc. This book is the case against sugar.

Am I convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt? No. And if you were, you didn’t understand the arguments. In nutrition science, one will never reach that point. It isn’t even theoretically possible to tease out such complicated interactions.

Am I convinced there is a preponderance of evidence? Of course! I would again say that if you can’t convict at this standard based on the case made in this book, you just haven’t understood the arguments and evidence.

The fact that this evidence standard is good enough to convict in many civil and criminal cases means we, as a society, need to take sugar more seriously. It’s an addictive drug and there’s a preponderance of evidence that it causes four of the top ten leading causes of death each year.

Dialogue – Robert McKee

This was quite excellent and a must read for all writers of fiction. Note: the book is NOT about how two characters converse with each other. This touches upon all aspects of prose, because even exposition is a type of dialogue between the narrative perspective and the reader.

The most useful part to me was the constant reiteration of how great works and complex characters use subtext. People rarely say what they mean or what they think. When your fictional characters do this, they come across as underdeveloped and one dimensional.

The price of the book is worth it for the in-depth analysis of several scenes from famous works at the end.

 

BEST RELEASED IN 2017:

I’m going to skip this category this year. There were a bunch of books that came out that looked great, but I never got around to them. The Case Against Sugar wins by default. Instead, I’ll list books that came out this year that I want to read.

Oathbringer – Brandon Sanderson

Exit West – Moshin Hamid

Borne – Jeff Vandermeer

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

 

Year of Short Fiction Part 0

If you’re new to this blog, you might not know that 2016 was the Year of Giant Novels. I got kind of burned out on that by the end, so I decided to make 2017 the Year of Short Fiction. I thought I’d spend a post talking about my expectations for this and what I plan to read (and take suggestions).

First off, I’ve read a bunch of short stories and posted analysis here in the past. So I wanted to collect some of them here for pre-reading if you’re interested. I also want them all in one place for easy reference for myself while going through this year.

The Stories of Cheever Part 1

The Stories of Cheever Part 2

The Stories of Cheever Part 3

Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way

Lost in the Funhouse

Critical Theory through If on a winter’s night a traveler

I think there are some more, but these are the ones that get the most views on the blog.

Expectations: I’m pretty excited for this, because well-written short stories can be great. I also think the novella is a vastly underappreciated form. There are a ton of hidden gem novellas that haven’t been discovered because they aren’t marketable. The length is too short to appeal to people that like novels and too long for people who want 15 minute stories. This didn’t used to be the case when you look to the past: James, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Wharton, and even Dickens (and more) have excellent and popular novellas.

Short fiction can accomplish much of the emotional or thematic resonance of a long novel in a fraction of the space. But to do this, the language must be much tighter. Novels can afford to meander or falter on the amount of description. Short fiction can’t.

This means I should be able to dive deep into the art and craft of prose. I should also spend a lot less time complaining about filler. I think that was my biggest surprise with the Year of Giant Novels. Some great novels need all that room, but most do not. I found myself sifting through a tedium of excess that should have been cut by an editor who knew better.

My guess is that this series should mostly replace my Examining Pro’s Prose series, since we’ll being doing it in the course of this series.

I also hope to encounter short story collections that don’t work. Many novelists take a crack at short story collections without realizing it is a completely different skill. If the description/pacing/etc are done in the same way as a novel, it will fail miserably. It could be instructive to dive into ways short fiction fails.

Right now, for me, Joyce’s Dubliners is the quintessential example of the short story collection done right. Some of those stories pack a serious punch with deep emotional content with fewer words than this blog post. I hope to find some more examples of this to point people to this year.

Right now, I don’t plan on re-reading story collections I’ve read in the past. This, unfortunately, rules out some great stuff like anything by David Foster Wallace or James Joyce. The goal is to expand my horizons.

Here’s what I have on the list so far:

Short Story Collections:

Gene Wolfe – The Fifth Head of Cerberus (these might be better classified as novellas?)

Jhumpa Lahiri – Interpreter of Maladies

Roxane Gay – An Untamed State

Italo Calvino – Cosmicomics

Denis Johnson – Jesus’ Son

Novellas:

Truman Capote – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (I’ve never read this?!)

Kate Chopin – The Awakening

Henry James – Daisy Miller

I’ll continue to add to this list as I come up with stuff. If you know of any you want me to do, please leave a comment. I’m very interested in finding great novellas written in the past 20 years. I know almost all of the above classify as “literary fiction,” but I’m not limiting myself to this. Tell me of some great sci-fi/fantasy if you know of any! Or even flash fiction collections could be interesting to look at.